China constructs new 119 nuclear missile silos along with plans to double its nuclear arsenal: Objectives and implications
Researchers at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies in Monterey, US analysed the commercial satellite images, which indicated that China is constructing 119 identical missile silos near Yumen city in Gansu province. And if the number of other silos is added, then China is going to have 145 silos. Alongside, China is trying to double its nuclear arsenal in the next five years. While currently China has about 300-350 nuclear weapons, it can have about 700 nuclear warheads in the next five years. The number of silos is too high even for 700 nuclear warheads.
Hence, this development needs to be examined in the background the Chinese declared nuclear doctrine and attempts to build ambiguity, disparity in nuclear weapons between China on the one hand and US on the other, growing tension in the US-China relations particularly over Taiwan, and the Chinese overall objective of redesigning the world order that places China at the top.
First, while China’s declared nuclear doctrine is ‘No First use’ (NFU), of late there are indications of changes in this doctrine. The Chinese strategists have been viewing NFU as an unnecessary self-imposed strategic constraint. The Chinese experts suggest that the “NFU” is not applicable in the areas belonging to China as it could use tactical nuclear weapons to re-capture its own areas. While this is mentioned in the context of Taiwan, it can have implications for all areas claimed by China in its periphery. China is adding ambiguity to sharpen its deterrence.
Second, China is also rapidly enhansing its nuclear capability. Adm. Charles Richard, who commands U.S. nuclear forces, said at a congressional hearing in April 2021 that a “breath taking expansion” was underway in China, including an expanding arsenal of ICBMs and new mobile missile launchers that can be easily hidden from satellites. Ambassador Robert Wood, the US envoy to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, stated recently that China is looking at developing advanced nuclear weapons systems that the US does not have. He pointed out that “exotic nukes” that China is looking at include “nuclear-powered underwater and nuclear-powered cruise missiles”. Possession of such weapons and systems could change the strategic environment in a dynamic manner.
Third, it has reorganised its nuclear force. The PLA Rocket Force has taken over the responsibilities of the Second Artillery of PLA to ‘strengthen the trustworthy and reliable nuclear deterrence and nuclear counter-attack capabilities, intensify the construction of medium and long-range precision strike power.’
Fourth, the US-China relations are deteriorating particularly on Taiwan. A top intelligence officer of US Admiral Mike Studeman warned that China was threatening on all fronts and not just Taiwan. On Taiwan, he assessed that a military invasion was only a matter of time and not a matter of ‘if’. He pointed out that the US officials are describing the current warpath with China the same way that Gen. Douglas McArthur described the lead up to World War II.
Clarifying the Chinese aim, Xi at the centenary speech averred that China was working to accelerate its modernisation programme to develop capabilities to seize Taiwan. Xi averred that China maintains an "unshakeable commitment" to unification with Taiwan. "No one should underestimate the resolve, the will and ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said.
The above statements indicate that tension over Taiwan is on the increase. While Xi hopes to unify Taiwan by 2027, US now assesses that a war on Taiwan is a distinct possibility. History shows that China over-reacts whenever it perceives that its objectives are threatened. India’s DSDBO road that runs parallel to LAC and provides the Indian military access to the section of the Tibet-Xinjaing highway that passes through Aksai Chin, was seen as a threat to the Chinese position in the region and the Chinese PLA tried to occupy Indian territory last year to pre-empt any possibility of India creating obstacles in its CPEC project and in its expansion in its periphery.
Crucially, Xi has projected the “Chinese Dream” to make China a world power by 2049 and prior to this it has to get back all the areas in its periphery. Taiwan, which is considered as the Chinese province by the CCP, is on the priority of Xi to be annexed. Xi in his speech warned foreign countries that the Chinese “will never allow anyone to bully, oppress or subjugate China" and that "Anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people." Hence, it appears that China expects a conflict on Taiwan and desires to strengthen its deterrence by having assured second strike capability. The construction of silos could provide China with yet another means of concealing its most powerful weapons. In this respect, the statement of Lewis, Director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Program at the Center for Non-proliferation Studies, part of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, deserves attention: “We believe China is expanding its nuclear forces in part to maintain a deterrent that can survive a U.S. first strike in sufficient numbers to defeat U.S. missile defences.”
These silos could be for DF-41 ICBMs which have range between 9500 to 12000 kms depending upon the payload. These could potentially reach the US targets. While the actual number of missiles to be kept in these silos are not known, it clear that only smaller number of missiles would be kept there as DF-41 is road-mobile instead of silo-based. The Chinese silos are spaced across 700 square miles so that no two could be knocked out by one nuclear warhead. This move ensures survivability of nuclear weapons to undertake the retaliatory attack. China could be adopting the same approach that was adopted by US and China.
Fifth, the larger issue is whether the Chinese decision is driven by purely military consideration or by its political ambition to change the world order dominated and governed by the rules framed by China. The doubling of the number of nuclear weapons and significantly increasing its missiles suggest that all steps are aimed at establishing its hegemony in the world. Such ambitions are bound to affect all nations. The qualitative and structural changes in the nuclear forces and possibility of lowering of threshold for use of nuclear weapons have been more significant than the increase in number of nuclear warheads.
India in its neighbourhood cannot ignore such overall objective of China as it is asserting claims over the Indian territory. The possible change in the NFU have serious implications. In a hypothetical scenario, China can use tactical nuclear weapons in Arunachal Pradesh or in Eastern Ladakh. While India constantly reviews its nuclear deterrence, the possible Chinese over-reaction and the fact that they have tactical nuclear weapons should be kept in view. As India now faces a collaborative threat from the Sino-Pak axis and both of them have lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, ways to strengthen deterrence should be found out. In addition, the need to have an effective overall strategy comprising all leverages to contain China along with other powers is a necessity and not an option.